Plica Polonica: A Mixture of Superstition, Scientific Inquiry, Racism and Folklore

Above: The engraving, possibly by Felicita Sartori (d. 1760 in Dresden), illustrated Thomas Salmon’s Lo stato presente di tutti paesi, e popoli del mondo, naturale, politico, e morale, published in volume 7 about the Commonwealth of Two Nations (1739), part of the 26 volumes printed in Venice in 1734-1766. Poland


For anyone who has read Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre, this malady – also called the Polish Plait – promises to satisfy as much strange and macabre fascination for weird history as the backstory of the cat-mutilating printer’s apprentices.

Historically known as the Polish plait, this condition usually results when dirty, neglected, and uncombed hair becomes irreversibly tangled and forms a matted, malodorous, moist stiff mass of hair. Plica Polonica presents typically as an elongated firm to a hard mass of keratin permanently cemented together with crusted pus, blood, nits, and dirt.[1] Plica (or Plicas) may be associated with damage to sections of the cuticle (the hair-shaft’s tough protective outer layer) hereby exposing a moist sticky cortex to which other similarly affected hair shafts adhere. The condition is mildly odiferous and capable of causing adhesion and matting of hair-shafts.[2]

In the early 17th century, people began to believe plaits were an external symptom of an internal illness. A growing plait was supposed to take the illness “out” of the body; the fouler and infested the plait became, the more bad humors were drawn from the body into the hair, and therefore it was rarely cut off. It was believed that purging one’s body of this tangled and stinking pile of hair was extremely risky because it threatened blindness, deafness, confusion of the senses, bleeding, and even death from convulsions.  In addition, the belief that a cut-off plait could avenge itself and bring an even greater illness discouraged some from attacking it, and that casting a magic spell on someone could cause that person to develop a Polish plait.


Polish plait in the Museum of the Faculty of Medicine, Medical College, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland

Initially, what was also called the “tangle” was not associated with lack of personal hygiene. The Polish name kołtun comes from kiełtanie się, i.e. the swinging motion of the tangled hair. It was believed that it arose spontaneously and was a symptom of rheumatism, which was a primary complaint in witches, especially Polish, which is confirmed by the Latin medical name of this ailment – polonica plague, and German – Weichselzopf because it was encountered most often in Poland, along with the banks of the Vistula.[3] Whether contracted by, filth, syphilis, or illness, it was also said that “Jews in taverns are to contribute much to its dissemination by giving vodka after dipping the tangle in it; whoever drinks such a vodka gets a tangle and at the same time becomes a drunk.”[4] The presence of a kołtun supposedly produced “inflammation of the bones, aversion to food, bad eyesight”, and sometimes even “vomiting”.  Few would risk the hazards of cutting off this malodorous bunch of hair that could result in blindness, deafness, insanity, bleeding and even death caused by convulsions.

During the epoch of baroque and the Enlightenment increases in the cases of Polish plait brought about the emergence of competing theses to explain the causes and treatment of the malady, representing a clash of two mentalities, religious and scientific.[5] This misery was considered by many a disease which did not respond to conventional treatments and called for healing by miraculous transformation. Any human attempt to get rid of the tangle was shown as detrimental and causing even more complications such as that suffered by Zofija Mroskowczanka, an unmarried woman. She “cut off a huge Polish plait formed on her head, and for this reason suffered great pain in her bones and eyes, [But] as soon as she devoted herself to a miraculous painting, she was immediately relieved of all her pains.”[6] Even at the beginning of the 19th century, Polish doctors believed that pregnant women had a predisposition to the tangle, and young “tangled” men were released from serving in the tsarist army.

One of the most influential publications of the Age of Enlightenment to include Polish plait in its field of attention was Diderot’s Encyclopaedia. The significance of this insertion called into question the societal belief that Polish plait was a punishment from God, a material manifestation of a disease or evil.  Diderot’s classification eliminated “the secret of a symbol and turned it into an obvious, visible, material object,” separating the manifestation of the disease from sacral symbolism.[7]

Diderot’s classification of Polish plait was also one small entry into “the order and concatenation* of human knowledge,” as was illustrated by the tree of knowledge.[8] By classifying PlicaPolonicaa under the section of pathologies, a subgroup of medicine, under Natural Sciences, Robert Darnton said that the classifications in the Encyclopédie “expressed an attempt to raise a boundary between the known and the unknowable in such a way as to eliminate most of what men held to be sacred from their world of learning.”[9] Whether Diderot or D’Alembert, the author of the entry took a polemic position against any religious manifestation of this disease:

Some authors emphasized even funnier fantastic causes, which were enlarged by fear, spread by deep-seated foolish faith in miracles, and maintained by ignorant credulity. Some common ignoramus, any number of whom can be found in all countries, believed it, and some even more stupid authors wrote about it, although being educated, they should know better than that; according to these authors, Polish plait is caused by magic, magical actions, and can be healed exclusively by supernatural means. According to other authors, the entanglement of hair is brought upon by dead unbaptized infants who perform this work at night. This nonsense was perpetuated by giving it a German name wichteln zoepffe; in Old German wichteln means ‘heathen’, and zoepffe, ‘knot’, ‘entanglement’. Some authors write that only incubi come to suck upon and entangle hair; others argue that incubi appear in the shape of a Jewess, and this popular delusion is registered by the name of juden-zoepffe, etc.[10]

Historian Larry Wolff wrote about plica polonica asan example of eighteenth-century western European prejudice against Eastern Europeans in his book, Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. Wolff relates the story and attitudes of William Coxe, who had made his Grand Tour, and published his findings in the multi-volume Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden, and Denmark (1784). Coxe relates this malady with the disease and barbarism of the Polish, linking their illness with backwardness, and critically describing, first, the “Polish air, which is rendered insalubrious by numerous woods and morasses;” second, the water, which the common people chose to drink was “taken indiscriminately from rivers, lakes, and stagnant pools;” and third, “the gross inattention of the natives to cleanliness.”[11]


Koltun of an elegant lady in the shape of a wig, 18th century. Jurand Pawłowski,

Plica was already known in pagan times, as indicated by the old name of the disease: wieszczyca, kołtki, skrzot, or skrzat, taken from pagan mythology. From the earliest times, it was believed that the perpetrators of the tangle were evil spirits and demons tormenting vulnerable people. So how did the people get rid of the ‘tangle,’? Piotr Łabędź relates some of the steps taken:

[I]t was necessary to check whether the tangle “wants to collapse”. For this purpose, one had to cut a strand of hair from the four sides of the head and wear them in a bag on the “heart hole”. If, after some time, the hair curled up, it indicated that you need to grow a tangled hair. For this purpose, it was necessary to pour the hair with the herbal decoction of borsch, Giant wall, periwinkle or burdock and rub it with wax from the paschal candle. The safest, however, as the tangled was the devil’s work, was to get rid of him in holy places, such as Częstochowa, Kalwaria Zebrzydowska or, finally, the St. Mary’s Church, famous for this type of “healing.” To remove the tangle, the following words had to be uttered three times: “Saint Benonie, go away with the tangle.” It was then possible to cut the tangle with scissors, symbolically placing it under the church. [Or] you could eat a boiled hedgehog……[12]

At the beginning of the nineteenth century there were doctors who treated tangled as an infectious disease much like leprosy, and even suggested to establish hospitals so that the sick would be separated from the rest of society. Fortunately, there were some brave medical doctors that did not fear to tackle the kołtun. William Dawson (c. 1593-1669), Scottish physician, chemist, botanist, and court musician of Jan Kazimierz Vasa and his wife, Ludwika Maria Gonzaga, proved extremely progressive for the times, by fearlessly cutting kołtuns off and advising combing and frequent washing of the hair. Professor Józef Dietl (1804-1878), rector of the Jagiellonian University, and known today in the practice of urology for discovering and describing the crisis attributable to a kink in the renal vessels or ureter when the kidney dropped as a “Dietl’s crisis,” finally put an end to the kołtun in 1862 by proving its origin and the lack of any connections between cutting it off and illnesses.[13]


 England: Mobile Matted Hair Detangler Tech

Today we see many hair styles that mimic the kołtun, but never fear, they are not infectious, possessed, or a curse; they simply beg to be cut off.

[1] Keratin is the structural protein making up hair, finger nails, horns, claws, hooves, and the outer layer of human skin. Keratin is also the protein that protects epithelial (skin) cells from damage or stress.

[2] The Trichological Society, Orthodox Hair-sciences & Hair-specialisms – Worldwide (1999-2018) (Accessed April 7, 2018).

[3] Hanna Widacka, Silva Rerum. “Plica polonica, or the Polish kołtun,” Hanna Widacka. Passage to Knowledge; Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanow.

[4] F. Wereńko, Contribution to folk medicine, Anthropological and archeological and ethnographic materials, ed. Anthropological Commission of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Krakow, vol. 1, Kraków 1886, pp. 208-210.

[5] Vaiva Klajumaitė (Vilnius University Museum, Lithuania). “The Phenomenon of Plica Polonica in Lithuania: A Clash of Religious and Scientific Mentalities,” Acta Baltica Historiae et Philosophiae Scientiarum. 2013;1(2 (Autumn 2013)):53-66 DOI 10.11590/abhps.2013.2.05

[6] Register of the Miracles in Ostrovna (1655–1658), [Unpublished manuscript], VUL inv 4 f 342, Vilnius: Vilnius University Library; in Klajumaitė, “The Phenomenon of Plica Polonica in Lithuania: A Clash of Religious and Scientific Mentalities.” 56-57.

[7] Klajumaitė, 59.

[8] Diderot, Denis. “Encyclopedia.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Philip Stewart. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2002. (accessed April 7, 2018). Originally published as “Encyclopédie,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, I, i. (Paris, 1755).

*a series of interconnected things or events

[9] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre, and Other Episodes in French History, (New York: Vintage Books, 1985). 194.

[10] Diderot, pp. 767–768.

[11] Larry Wolff. Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment. (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994) 29-30.

[12] Piotr Łabędź, “Kołtun Plica polonica zwany,” Inne Oblicza Historii. (2011),1087 (Accessed April 7, 2018)

[13] Thaddaeus Zajaczkowski. “Joseph Dietl (1804-1878). Innovator of medicine and his credit for urology,” Central European Journal of Urology (February 2010) 62. (Accessed April 7, 2018)

The Value of Internship

Museums are “a repository of objects dedicated to the promotion of tolerance and inquiry and the dissipation of ignorance, where the artifacts of one culture and one time are preserved and displayed next to those of other cultures and times without prejudice.”[1]

Internships within museums or archives are a vital learning tool for those students who wish to engage with the physical pieces of history. Those pieces give us a tangible connection to those persons and eras that touch our senses and curiosities, and compel us forward into the field of History. These artifacts and documents increase our knowledge of other cultures and instill us with empathy and insight into why actions and events happened. My journey toward becoming a Public Historian began as a child digging into the side of a hill to excavate treasures from a hundred-year-old root cellar. Today, as it was then, I can hold the objects in my hands and feel the individuals that may have touched and utilized these things.

This summer I was privileged to accept an internship at The Abraham Lincoln Foundation of The Union League of Philadelphia. My principal task was to organize and catalogue the manuscript collection of the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia. Even though that museum closed in 2008, its collections are being cared for and made available to the public through the efforts of the Gettysburg Foundation, the Gettysburg National Military Park, and the Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League of Philadelphia. Working with the documents and miscellaneous papers in numerous boxes has given me invaluable experience in archival applications. The detail-oriented work of archivists in managing a collection is paramount to researchers who seek historical documents for their projects; indeed, it is the expectation of all who access these resources that the integrity of the collection be meticulously maintained. Proper care of these items ensures that students of history and historians can offer to the public theoretical explanations as to why choices were made or why an event occurred.

Within the manuscript collection of the CWMP are the written words of soldiers and their families, as well as presidents and staff.  Each box and folder that I opened contained a small piece of Civil War history that had the potential of being lost to the ages if not made available to researchers. Tasked with sorting, cataloging, scanning and proper storage, I handled hundreds of items. My first task was one that has stayed with me since reading the first letter.

Supply List

The supply list of William “Billy” F. Thacher, 16th Regiment, Pennsylvania Cavalry, c.May- November 1863


William F. Thacher was a young farmer just nineteen years old when he enlisted with the 16th Regiment, Pennsylvania Cavalry. Born in Genesee County, NY, “Billy” was 5’10” and had gray eyes and dark hair. He was enlisted on September 12, 1862 at Erie Co., PA by Lieut. Hazelton for a period of 3 years. There are twelve letters in this collection, one from his sister Annie, and one from a 16th Cavalry comrade informing “Billy’s” family of his wound and amputation; the others are from William to his mother or “Parrents”[sic]. Each letter was written at a unique juncture in his service. From his first encampment and adjustment to life as a soldier, picket duty, his first wound (a saber cut to the wrist), his hospital stay, and finally attending Quaker City College in Philadelphia to learn telegraphing and bookkeeping. On July 28, 1864 William was wounded a second time when he took a ball to his arm while his regiment was “sharply engaged with the enemy Near Malvern Hill … three killed and fourteen wounded” at Deep Bottom, VA.[2] Two days after the fighting, William’s friend, Robert Blair wrote to the family with the news and words of encouragement: “he bore the pain like a brave Soldier Boy… Mrs Thacher you must not be uneasy about Billy for he will get along first rate and will soon be home …. Oh how lonesome I will be without him for we was always together…. His horse was wounded to[sic] in the foot”[3] William was finally discharged from the hospital and his service on June 15, 1865. He listed his place of residence after the war as Vineland, County Cumberland, New Jersey.

With the support of the Graduate Summer Research Fellowship, I spent two weeks in research at The National Archives in Washington, D.C. and College Park, MD. While there, I included William into my queries and learned that he was well-regarded by his superiors, having received a promotion to corporal. He was also unfairly disciplined and “tied up” while on picket duty. Regiment Commander, Lieut. Col. J. K. Robison requesting, “in justice to a good and faithful soldier, – and for the benefit of the service, a court of inquiry be had, – and the officer, if found over stepping his authority as Brigade Officer of the Day, and violating all orders of military discipline, be put under arrest, and charges preferred against him.”[4] I also found the list of supplies and clothing he requisitioned.[5]



I have not yet found all the pieces to the story of William F. Thacher, that will take many more hours of treasure hunting through online and physical archives. But the example here is how valuable an internship is to a student of History. My experience has not only taught me the important tasks of the archivist, such as analyzing, cataloging, and housing the artifacts, but it has also shown me how to make this information accessible to the public. When these pieces of history are made available for research, they not only teach us about past individuals and historic events, but also create potential for public conversations that can change the future.


[1] James Cuno, ed. “Introduction,” Whose Culture? The Promise of Museums and the Debate over Antiquities, 1-36. Princeton University Press, 2009. Pg 1

[2] Janet B. Hewett, Supplement to the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies: Part II – Record of Events. Vol. 57, Serial No. 69. (Wilmington: Broadfoot Publishing Company, 1997) Pg 422

[3] Letter images courtesy of The Abraham Lincoln Foundation of the Union League

[4] Letter from Lieut. Col. J. K. Robison, Regiment Commander, to Lieut. John B. Maitland, Assistant Adjutant General, February 21, 1864; Regimental Letter – Endorsement, Journal, and Misc. Book, Vol. 4 of 9, 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Record Group 94; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

[5] Regimental Order Book, Companies A – M, 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry, Vol. 6 of 9, Record Group 94; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. (image courtesy of the author)